Thursday, November 6, 2008

Analysis of Cuban American vote

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Obama first Democrat to win Florida's Hispanic vote

Marking a historic shift, Sen. Barack Obama won a majority of Florida's Hispanic vote statewide and nearly tied Sen. John McCain in Miami-Dade, where Republicans had long dominated the Hispanic vote.

No Democratic presidential candidate had ever achieved either milestone since the exit polling of Hispanics first began in the 1980s, pollsters say.

Nationwide, Obama won the Hispanic vote by a wider margin, garnering 66 percent to McCain's 32 percent, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

In Florida, Obama won 57 percent of the Hispanics on Tuesday, compared to 42 percent for McCain, according to exit polling by Bendixen & Associates, a Democratic pollster.

By comparison, President Bush won 55 percent of the state's Hispanic vote to John Kerry's 44 percent in 2004, according to exit polls.

Polls indicate the state's Hispanic vote may now be divided. On one side are conservative older Cuban Americans, who vote reliably Republican. On the other are younger Cuban Americans coupled with an expanding number of non-Cuban Hispanics, who tend to lean Democratic.

''This is a demographic revolution happening in Miami-Dade County,'' said Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Associates, which has been heralding a Hispanic electoral shift for years.

According to Bendixen's exit polls, Obama won 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Miami-Dade County, nearly 10 points higher than Kerry's showing in 2004. Within that community, the generational difference was stark. For example, 84 percent of Miami-Dade Cuban-American voters 65 or older backed McCain, while 55 percent of those 29 or younger backed Obama.

For evidence of the potential divide among Cuban Americans, consider Miami's Pujol family.


Alexandra Palomo-Pujol, 24, helped persuade her mother Rose, a lifelong Republican, to back Obama -- but those arguments failed with her grandparents, who emigrated from Cuba in 1959.

''Over three generations, we grew up in completely different places and we all see things differently and it's hard to see eye-to-eye,'' said Palomo-Pujol, an executive assistant. ``It's hard not to have those differences change the most important relationships in your life.''

The family's debates over the election at times ended in slammed doors and days spent without speaking, Palomo-Pujol said.

Her grandfather Jose Luis Pujol regularly called into Cuban-American radio shows before the election, telling listeners that an Obama victory would mean that soon the little pioneros would be part of the U.S. education system. The ''pioneers'' are the children in Cuba's communist education system who are taught to support the revolution with mottoes such as ``we will be like Che [Guevara].''

Meanwhile, Rose Pujol, 53, became an enthusiastic Obama supporter, attending the Democratic Convention, volunteering for the Florida campaign and putting up a life-size cutout of Obama in her Coconut Grove offices.

When she went to tell her parents that she and her daughters were backing the Democratic candidate, they were appalled.

''I could see the hair rising up on their arms, even though I kept telling them that it's OK to realize 50 years later that the party you're part of needs to be revamped,'' Pujol said.

Despite the political divide in families like the Pujols, Cuban-American political observers say this year's presidential election did not signal a departure from the past.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading embargo lobbyist, said the polls suggest Cubans may have simply voted with their pocketbooks in the presidential contest and cast traditional votes for Miami-Dade's three long-standing Cuban-American lawmakers -- Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart -- to hold the line on Cuba sanctions.

''The message from the community was clearly a reaffirmation of the Cuba policy. There's no doubt about it,'' Claver-Carone said. ``They were comfortable taking the risk with an unknown president, but they've got the insurance policy, per se, with the members of Congress.''


But Jeff Garcia, campaign manager for Raul Martinez, Lincoln Diaz-Balart's opponent, said his candidate lost the race among non-Hispanic whites in Broward County -- not Cuban Americans. Although Obama captured 65 percent of Broward voters, Martinez got only half. The congressional district includes Hialeah and southwest Broward.

Yet in all three congressional contests, the subject of Cuba -- be it the decades-old embargo, lifting travel restrictions or Fidel and Raul Castro -- rarely arose on the campaign trail or over the television airwaves.

This was especially true among the growing non-Cuban Hispanic communities that contributed to Obama's victory.

That group has swelled the voter rolls in recent years with largely Democratic or independent voters. Statewide, Hispanic Democrats now outnumber Hispanic Republicans, 513,000 to 445,000.

The stark differences among the communities in Miami-Dade were apparent in a precinct-by-precinct analysis.

Stretching west along Flagler through Sweetwater, and in Hialeah, the mostly Cuban voters came out more than 2-1 for McCain. Not so in West Kendall, Doral, downtown Miami and Homestead, where non-Cuban Hispanics dominate. Obama won them all.

''I think ultimately Obama was able to connect with Hispanics because they were able to identify with what he stands for, because his story is the story of every immigrant,'' said Colombian-American Nelson Hincapie, 35, of Miami.

Hincapie wasn't always an enthusiastic Obama supporter. Like many Latin American immigrants, he was also concerned about how his vote might affect his South American homeland. He was planning to vote for McCain because of Obama's opposition to the free trade agreement with Colombia.

In the end, his doubts about McCain's ability to handle the rigors of the presidency led him to support Obama.

He eventually volunteered for the Democrat's campaign with several of his Colombian-American friends -- voters who had wanted to back McCain.

''The truth of the matter is we live here, our kids are here, and we have to think about that when we're voting,'' he said.

Miami Herald staff writers Lesley Clark and Rob Barry contributed to this report.